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Software Programming IT Technology

30th Anniversary of the (No Good) Spreadsheet 407

Posted by timothy
from the malignant-cells dept.
theodp writes "PC Magazine's John C. Dvorak offers his curmudgeonly take on the 30th anniversary of the spreadsheet, which Dvorak blames for elevating once lowly bean counters to the executive suite and enabling them to make some truly horrible decisions. But even if you believe that VisiCalc was the root-of-all-evil, as Dvorak claims, your geek side still has to admire it for the programming tour-de-force that it was, implemented in 32KB memory using the look-Ma-no-multiply-or-divide instruction set of the 1MHz 8-bit 6502 processor that powered the Apple II." On the brighter side, one of my favorite things about Visicalc is the widely repeated story that it was snuck into businesses on Apple machines bought under the guise of word processors, but covertly used for accounting instead.
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30th Anniversary of the (No Good) Spreadsheet

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  • by twmcneil (942300) on Tuesday January 13, 2009 @09:15AM (#26432373)
    The only way to get rid of Dvorak is to deny him him the clicks. Don't follow the link.
  • Re:Why use MUL/DIV (Score:5, Informative)

    by larry bagina (561269) on Tuesday January 13, 2009 @09:18AM (#26432429) Journal
    6502 doesn't have jle. It has bcs (branch carry set/greater or equal) and bcc (branch carry clear/less than).
  • by cliffiecee (136220) on Tuesday January 13, 2009 @09:19AM (#26432443) Homepage Journal

    No multiply or divide? Oh Noes!!1!!

    Meh [wikipedia.org]

    "On most older microprocessors, bitwise operations are slightly faster than addition and subtraction operations and usually significantly faster than multiplication and division operations,"

  • by mritunjai (518932) on Tuesday January 13, 2009 @09:25AM (#26432533) Homepage

    Who'd 've thought :-)

    Google for visicalc.com and download from the second link.

    BEWARE: DO NOT run it on your main computer. Use a windows virtual machine or dosbox on *nix. It runs perfectly in both even after these years.

  • Re:Loooooong time (Score:2, Informative)

    by cthulu_mt (1124113) on Tuesday January 13, 2009 @09:55AM (#26433053)
    Reversing the X and Y axis for your data is also the easiest way to make the data lie.

    It's like Mr. Twain said.
  • Re:Why use MUL/DIV (Score:3, Informative)

    by bhtooefr (649901) <bhtooefr&bhtooefr,org> on Tuesday January 13, 2009 @10:14AM (#26433343) Homepage Journal

    I don't believe they did use BASIC's floating point routines.

    There were two sets of floating point routines you could call...

    The first set was in the Programmer's Aid #1 ROM, which was optional, and obviously required for anything that wanted to use it, so not too much stuff used it.

    The second set was in Applesoft BASIC (a modified version of Microsoft BASIC,) but not in Woz BASIC (also known as Integer BASIC,) so calling them on an unmodified Apple ][ would result in a crash. (If it had the Applesoft ROMs installed, or was a ][+ or newer, no problem.)

  • by ErichTheRed (39327) on Tuesday January 13, 2009 @10:29AM (#26433623)

    I have worked in a lot of IT positions, and every company I have worked for has always done all of their "real" decision-making on hacked-together spreadsheets. The truth is that the spreadsheet was one of the first "business analysis" tools that was intuitive enough for an end-user to really do power-user things.

    That said, Excel and Access "applications" that glue organizations together are the bane of IT's existence. Despite what the sales guys say, all of the company's numbers come out of SAP, Oracle Financials, etc. and into one of these programs to do any useful work with them. I know I'm working on making Office 2007 available to those who want it, and getting some of these Excel and Access 97-era macros carried forward can be...challenging. Access is another horror story -- once a database hits 2 GB in size, file corruption is extremely likely, especially if multiple users are hitting the same database over a network.

    If you ever get sick of software development or sysadmin work, and like pain, I guarantee there will be work available for anyone willing to wade through a million lines of VB spaghetti code written by an MBA who took an Excel class in 1996.

  • Re:What if... (Score:5, Informative)

    by jollyreaper (513215) on Tuesday January 13, 2009 @11:01AM (#26434171)

    ...John C. Dvorak were no longer paid to write lame articles?

    What if Slashdot readers didn't submit them? And what if the editors didn't post them? Then, then I wouldn't be compelled to bitch about them here. I could pretend that meat puppet didn't even exist.

  • Re:Loooooong time (Score:5, Informative)

    by Hal_Porter (817932) on Tuesday January 13, 2009 @11:34AM (#26434749)

    Graphing. CEOs can't understand numbers, they make their brains run out their ears.

    Bleh. We are spatial, visual creatures by nature, graphs make complex and even simple representations of data much easier for everyone. Dunno, where exactly this whole mantra of it just being for stupid bosses came from when graphing functions were created for mathematicians.

    It's a very ancient meme. The Ancient Greeks and Romans had stock characters of the scheming slave manipulating their foolish masters. I suppose in many ways the readers of slashdot are the galley slaves of the modern world. Joking takes people's minds off the fact that being on call is the modern equivalent of being chained to an oar.

  • Lotus Improv!!!! (Score:3, Informative)

    by BenEnglishAtHome (449670) on Tuesday January 13, 2009 @11:55AM (#26435127)

    My God, I miss Improv! Thanks for the reminder.

    There was a time when I could do everything (or thought I could do everything) with Improv, askSam, WordPerfect, and Harvard Graphics. I'm not sorry to leave HG behind, but I think I could still do everything *worth* doing with the other named tools.

    Hey, you kids! Get off my lawn! :-)

  • Re:Sad John (Score:3, Informative)

    by DragonWriter (970822) on Tuesday January 13, 2009 @01:24PM (#26436699)

    Unfortunately, that doesn't make as good a kvetch. He's right about one thing though...the current financial collapse is due to financial decision makers (mostly accountants) putting too much faith in a calculation that can be done on a spreadsheet.

    Which has nothing to do with spreadsheets. Decision-making focussing on measures that are of dubious prospective utility but that are easily quantified and manipulated has been a problem since people started applying math to decision making in the first place.

    Thinking that "...with a spreadsheet!" makes this any different is the same kind of thinking that generates (and supports) the idea that "...on the internet!" or "...with a computer!" makes something novel and patent-worthy.

  • by jamrock (863246) on Tuesday January 13, 2009 @02:42PM (#26438077)

    If you really think that engineers (or any knowledge worker for that matter) are simply "commodities", then you truly don't understand. Quality varies considerably.

    Why are you assuming that I don't understand? My brothers and I own and operate a retail chain with 2,300 employees, and I probably have a much better understanding than you about the variation in quality among rank and file workers (I'm in charge of training). I stand by my statement: the sad fact is that workers are treated as commodities by many companies, and you're deluding yourself if you think these companies really care about the quality of their people.

    Apart from directing our in-house training and orientation programs, I'm also an instructor, and I can tell you from more than 30 years of professional experience that companies generally follow two models when it comes to how they treat their workers. Very, very few of them invest the resources in actually developing the individual; the vast majority subscribe to what we call the "turn-and-burn" philosophy. They burn them out and turn them over. This is particularly true among manufacturing companies, where the bulk of employees do not interface with the public. As shocking as it may seem to most people, companies actually pursue this philosophy, and plan for high staff turnover.

    Service companies such as ours don't have the luxury of outsourcing; people actually have to come into our stores. Not only would the turn-and-burn model destroy our business in very short order, as the replacement and training cost of quality staff would be prohibitive, but the level of service would crater. In the retail business, price is not nearly as great a distinguishing factor between companies as one might think. It boils down to service; if our customers are happy with it they'll come back, and they'll recommend us to family and friends. Believe me, we know how critical it is to invest in the training and development of staff who actually have to deal with people, sometimes having to maintain their professionalism even in the face of the most egregious provocation. That takes training, lots and lots of expensive training, but it is critical to our survival and prosperity. I'm willing to bet that every time you hear horror stories about the terrible level of service at any organization it's a function of poor training.

    I'm not terribly concerned about the execs that earn 10 times an average workers salary. I'm terribly concerned about the ones that earn 100-200x an average workers salary. Those people are seriously overpaid, and more often than not based on graft and not performance.

    You're assuming again. Without being privy to the financials, how do you judge whether an exec is overpaid or not? What you need to compare is not salaries, but the value each individual brings to the company. Are you going to tell me that Steve Jobs' value to Apple isn't 100-200 greater than that of a code jockey in some windowless building in Cupertino? And that broad statement about graft versus performance gives the impression that most execs are corrupt. Care to back that up with some facts?

  • Re:Why use MUL/DIV (Score:3, Informative)

    by Shakrai (717556) on Tuesday January 13, 2009 @03:24PM (#26438747) Journal

    The WRT54G draws less than 6W while actively transmitting. Mine has an uptime of 126 on regular wall power, and can saturate my DSL connection even when terminating an OpenVPN connection. If you replace your 486, might I suggest something a little smaller?

    I prefer the flexibility of having a full fledged Linux box that I can access from anywhere in the world if I need to. I've thought about going the DD-WRT route but it still doesn't seem as flexible as having a real computer running.

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